Spring LEAF celebrates Cuban music and art traditions

SPICE IS NICE: For its spring festival, LEAF celebrates Cuban connections. "It's crucial to expose ourselves to the great diversity of creative expression from all over the world," says Ringmistress Iz Web of Clan Destiny Circus. "It can help keep our hopes up that we can bridge our differences." From the top, Clan Destiny Circus photo by Mozingo Photography, Juan de Marcos and the Afro-Cuban All Stars photo courtesy of the band, MarchFourth! photo by Andrew Wyatt

For the first time in more than 50 years, the doors of communication and collaboration between Cuba and the U.S. have been reopened. To honor this historic moment and celebrate Cuban culture’s influence on generations of Latin music acts across the globe, LEAF has chosen “World Fusion with Cuban Spice” as the theme for its annual spring festival, which runs Thursday, May 12, through Sunday, May 15.

“From salsa to timba to Afro-Cuban jazz, percussion and brass, we welcome one and all to be inspired by a world of passionate rhythm and infectious groove from an island unlike any other,” says Ehren Cruz, LEAF performing arts director. “Not everyone has the ability to travel to Cuba yet at this time [due to the] significant logistic and resource challenges that one may incur, but everyone is welcome to find their home in the Appalachian mountains of Lake Eden to experience the sights, sounds and spice of Cuba and 20 additional fusions of roots and world music to boot.”

Among the diverse acts set to grace LEAF’s six stages are Havana’s own Juan de Marcos and the Afro-Cuban All Stars; Portland, Ore.-based fusion ensemble MarchFourth!; and the Asheville-based circus theater troupe Clan Destiny Circus. The leaders of each share their thoughts with Xpress on Cuban music and the recent diplomatic progress.

Xpress: The Afro-Cuban All Stars are devoted to promoting the complete story of Cuban music. What comprises that story?

Juan de Marcos: Performing the different genres of our music, from the most traditional styles up to the contemporary ones, and sometimes mixing them to get a new and unexpected result. For us, it’s important to show new audiences the diversity and complexity of our music. Cuba, despite being a very small country, has been for years one of the strongest influences in all kind of music worldwide. Here in your country, for example, great symphonic composers like Bernstein, Copland and Gershwin to remarkable rock bands like Santana, The Grateful Dead and Steely Dan have used Cuban elements in their compositions and performances. Also, what your scholars call the “Latin Tinge” is one of the foundations of the New Orleans proto-jazz scene.

How is your group’s work inspired by Cuban arts and culture?

Ringmistress Iz Web (Clan Destiny Circus): Our shows have always been inspired by the sounds and rhythms of world fusion, and we strive to bring dance styles from all over the world into our shows. For spring LEAF, we’re reworking one of our choreographies to be performed to a popular Cuban song, and several of our artists are learning Cuban dance to get ready for the weekend.

John Averill (MarchFourth!): We’ve always been a genre-blending kind of band and we definitely have some Latin spice in our kitchen. We cook with ingredients from all over the world. Does Afro-Cuban count? We’ve got some of that.

What do the improving relations between Cuba and the U.S. mean to you? What impacts do you think this diplomatic shift will have on your art and other artists in both countries?

de Marcos: Finally, a U.S. administration has realized that the policy they were carrying on for years was absolutely unsuccessful, and this is a good beginning. The blockade — or embargo, as you call it — never worked. A flexible policy based on mutual respect is better and even could help the United States’ real interests. This is a first step. I hope that soon the U.S. government will revoke the restrictions that are in place now that make it impossible for artists to be signed by U.S. labels and be properly paid for their services. These restrictions have damaged the distribution of our music in your country. When Cuban music returns to its natural place here, everybody will be happier.

Averill: I honestly haven’t been paying much attention to world affairs lately … but I do know that Trump seems to be the closest thing to a greedy, ignorant and bullying fascist that this country has ever seen in terms of a potential president. If he gets elected, then I imagine that previous (and future) diplomatic efforts — in Cuba and elsewhere — could be nuked back to the Stone Age, which could affect artists and people everywhere.

Web: I think I have a unique perspective on this, since as part of my “day job” I am a co-producer of Buena Vista Social Club Adios, a documentary of the band’s final tour and a follow-up to their original 1999 Oscar-nominated documentary, which is credited as bringing awareness of Cuban music to the masses.

When you get to know the heart and soul of a people through their music, dance and art, and you start to see that they share the same love of life, the same trials and tribulations, the same hopes and dreams as the rest of us, it’s hard to keep seeing them as an enemy. I see this as a prime example of why sharing our art with other people is so important and why it’s crucial to expose ourselves to the great diversity of creative expression from all over the world. It can help keep our hopes up that we can bridge our differences. If we can find a way to celebrate our differences, en masse, then perhaps we can evolve into a more peaceful, more joyful world. We have so much we can learn from each other.

WHAT: LEAF Spring Festival
WHERE: Lake Eden, Black Mountain, theleaf.org
WHEN: Thursday, May 12, to Sunday, May 15. Tickets are sold only in advance and all overnight, weekend and Saturday tickets had sold out at press time. Friday evening or Sunday day pass $52 adults/$42 youths ages 10-17. Parking $8 advance/$10 day of event (all-day visitors park at Owen Middle School and take free shuttle to the festival)

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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